Sermon for Sunday 10 October 2021
Trinity 19 Fr Michael Bowie
‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’…
‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Today’s gospel illustrates precisely how the Word of God is a person, not a book, that being the crucial difference between ourselves and any other religion. This is also powerfully communicated by Hebrews today:
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 4.12
That lies at the heart of what is going on in today’s gospel, in which Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, uses a bizarre image.
Some of you will have heard many sermons on the camel and the eye of a needle. Much effort has been expended on making it seem less weird. This is a mistake. It is weird.
There are two standard approaches: I wonder if you’ve heard them. One is to claim that there was a narrow gate or small door in the city wall of Jerusalem, known as ‘the eye of the needle’, and that the saying refers to a camel shedding baggage and kneeling in order to get through it, the moral being that we need to lose some baggage and be humble to get to heaven. Heard that one? There is not a shred of evidence for it earlier than the ninth century; it is mostly a story embroidered in the nineteenth.
Then there’s the older and more ingenious explanation, which merely involves inventing a new Greek word. The word for camel, KAMELOS, is alleged to be a scribal error in copying a rare Greek word for a rope, KAMILOS, one vowel away from it. But, sadly, it turns out that this word, KAMILOS, was invented to ‘improve’ this saying of Jesus by an early scribe. The invented word makes the image into threading a rope through a needle’s eye, possibly a plausible exaggeration. But Jesus doesn’t do plausible.
This image isn’t meant to be a logical comparison. It is intended to grab people’s attention. The weird juxtaposition of big animal and needle-aperture is found elsewhere. Some early Rabbis outside Palestine referred to something difficult as like getting an elephant through the eye of a needle; other Rabbis referred to something as unlikely as a date-palm made of gold. And there is an old ANE proverb about camels and needles. A camel, rather than an elephant, is the largest animal in Palestine and so it is the natural local choice for an extreme image. Jesus is never shy of extravagant thought in his attempts to communicate his urgent message of good news, the prodigal generosity of God.
The message does not stop there. The Word of God being a person and not a book, alive and active, not a dead letter, means that the judgement of God’s Word never stands apart from God’s mercy.
They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 10.26-27
For, as Hebrews reminded us,
…the word of God is living and active, … it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. Hebrews 4.12-13
God’s Word, being a live person and not a dead book, accomplishes feats of discernment which the codes of human language cannot describe.
Back to our camel. As I’ve said, the lame explanations of it alter what Jesus depicted as a ludicrous impossibility into something merely difficult. That was not what Jesus meant, nor, clearly, how the disciples are presented as understanding him:
Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 10.27
Note, impossible, not difficult.
The camel is a camel, the needle is a needle; the eye of the needle is what it says it is: these images travel remarkably well across languages and centuries. We have to hear the weird comparison and let the challenge of it bear fruit in our life of faith: we can’t explain it away. Faith, like the Church and our worship of Almighty God, is not comfortable; it is generous.
When I’m reading difficult gospels, especially those which challenge the affluent, in which category I place myself, I often turn to the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez. Helpfully he does not use this gospel as easy ammunition but looks at what Jesus’ challenge meant for the particular person:
Giving up his possessions proves to be too difficult for the man. Like many of us, he prefers to live his faith resigned to comfortable mediocrity. He does believe, but not that much.
The disciples, on the other hand, understand the message perfectly well. The whole matter seems next to impossible for them. To go through the eye of the needle means placing all our trust in God and not in wealth. It is not easy either personally or as church to accept this challenge and, like the disciples, with would-be realism, we wonder: “Then, who can be saved?” (v.26) We allege that money gives us security and that it enables us to be effective. The Lord reminds us that our capacity to believe in God alone is a grace (v.27), something given.
As the community of disciples, as the Church, we are called to seek first, not our securities, but the Kingdom, whence we are led by God’s living Word, who, like a two-edged sword, cuts through our ties of dependence on human prestige. As St Paul says:
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ Gal. 6.14
Nothing is hidden from God the Word, who is alive and active, who is not a printed text which can’t talk back; all our complicities appear in sharp relief. And then, like a sunburst, comes a gift, mercy and love: ‘For God all things are possible’. That’s grace. We are called to acknowledge and respond to the challenge with a prodigal generosity that seeks to emulate God’s mercy and love.